Police tell why they held back during Mardi Gras violence
Seattle Times staff reporters
For three hours Mardi Gras night, revelers, for the most part, had the streets around Pioneer Square to themselves.
According to the incident commander who directed police during last week's melee, Assistant Chief Dan Bryant, uniformed officers, plainclothes police, horse patrols and bicycle cops were pulled out of the area at 10:30 p.m.
Aside from sporadic rescues of people already injured and arrests on the periphery of the large crowd, it would be 1:30 a.m. before police marched down First, Second and Third avenues and cleared them of rowdy partygoers.
By then, one man was fatally injured, scores hurt and 21 arrested.
In the past week, a special detectives task force arrested four people after questioning witnesses and viewing videotapes. The latest arrest came Monday, when a 15-year-old Seattle youth was arrested for allegedly kicking a young woman while she was down. He was released pending charges.
Yesterday, as Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske met with newspaper editorial boards and other media to continue to explain his decisions that night, his commander spelled out, in more detail than has yet emerged, what the police did that night and why.
While Kerlikowske was aware of Bryant's every move, Bryant said he controlled the department's deployment that night.
"We knew there would be large crowds," Bryant said. "We knew the potential for violence."
This is how police prepared for and positioned themselves Mardi Gras evening:
At 6 p.m., the chief and police commanders met at a briefing at the West Precinct.
The weekend before had given them clues what to expect. Drunken crowds had gathered Friday, and Saturday night a police horse had been cut by a razor blade.
Nonetheless, city police felt comfortable enough with their preparations that they declined an offer of 100 police in riot gear from the King County sheriff.
By 7:30, 350 officers were taken downtown in van-pools and five Metro buses.
Ninety-five officers were deployed on the streets, on horse or bikes, a law-and-order presence intended to deter rowdiness. "They were to be a show of force down there, to write citations," Bryant said.
A hundred officers waited in vans at Colman Dock in case things got out of control.
The remaining officers were either deployed as backup or plainclothes police who could identify lawbreakers to uniformed officers.
Twenty-one other officers waited to seal off the streets if revelers blocked traffic.
A SWAT team was at the ready, and detectives were charged with booking suspects and taking them to jail.
In the early hours of the night, police tried to keep their numbers hidden to avoid spooking and provoking the crowds.
"A show of too much force is confrontational and promotes violence," said Bryant.
When Bryant walked around Pioneer Square about 7:30, everything seemed in control: "The officers were mingling with the crowd. People were staying on the sidewalks; there wasn't any violence."
But by 10:30 p.m., police sealed off the area as cars were attacked by drunken partygoers.
By then, the crowds had spilled into the streets, making it impossible for police to move quickly, Bryant said. When bottles were thrown at officers, Bryant decided to pull the foot, horse and bicycle cops out of Pioneer Square.
"They weren't effective for anything but protecting themselves," he said.
Bryant said yesterday he couldn't recall whether any officers had asked to be removed from the area.
Officer Stuart Colman, vice president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, was on bike patrol in Pioneer Square that night. He said the bike police were not under attack and didn't feel threatened. But the realization that violence could erupt any time was never far from his mind.
"I would never condone the surrendering of territory like that, from a tactical aspect, because that ended the law-enforcement right there that night," Colman said. "We should have maintained an atmosphere of law and order, even if a few officers ended up taking a bottle."
Cops couldn't stop the fights because they couldn't see through the crowds or reach them, Bryant said. But most of the scuffles didn't seem serious.
"It looked to me like drunks getting into mutual combat," he said. "There would be a flurry of fists and they would walk away."
Bryant said he has thought about that night many times in the past week, and thought about his options. Although he considered sending police back into the fray, "it looked to me that we would be targets of aggression. The officers would be surrounded. We would have been of limited effectiveness other than to be recipients of (thrown) bottles."
By 12:45 or 1 a.m., as people started leaving the area, the violence suddenly escalated. Assaults were erupting at a faster pace all over the place and crowds began trashing overturned cars.
Some time before 1, 20-year-old Kristopher Kime of Kent was hit in the back of the head with a bottle and beaten as he lay on the sidewalk. He was carried out by friends and off-duty firefighters and taken to Harborview Medical Center, where he died later that day.
About that time, an undercover officer radioed that someone had fired five gunshots, and Bryant ordered police to march down First, Second and Third avenues from Columbia Street.
Police first used tear gas and pepper spray around 1:15.
In a half-hour, the streets were under control.
In retrospect, Bryant said, he was surprised by the violence and deeply saddened by the beating death of Kime. The young man's memorial service is at 7 tonight at Evergreen High School in Seattle.
Kerlikowske yesterday said there was no "magic police pill" that could prevent drunken, mob-driven violence in Seattle - or any other city. And he backed his commander's decisions that night.
"I'm going to take all the responsibility and heat for a long time," he said.